Our Concept Of Ibadat And Cognisance Of Servanthood


We are human beings and we are tested by various trials in this mortal life. Sometimes we are deceived by worldly things by falling for Shaytan’s trickery and yielding to our nafs, i.e. egos. All this can have us think that our servanthood to Allah is merely religious obligations. In this sense, what we ought to do is actually clear. We should perform our worships sincerely with ihlas and for the sake of divine consent, Allah’s riza,  by adhering to Quran and Sunnah. Besides the farz obligations, we should carry out the sincere deeds, i.e. salih amals, without negligence. Applying muslimhood to every aspect of life, we should appropriately perform the necessities.

There is a Turkish saying that is common among people, meaning the five times a day salah: “Perform the five, save the soul!” This is possibly a suggestion done by good will, to draw attention to the importance of salah and promote its fulfilment. Even if it is this way, there is certainly a risk of reducing our religious obligations and servanthood to only salah, and presuming that our ibadats are the advance payment for happiness in the afterlife. For example, when the late Mahir İz, who was a professor at Istanbul Islamic High Institution, was asked during one of his talks:

  • They say “Perform the five, save the soul!” Is this true?

He answers:

  • There is a five that will cause your salvation but it does not only consist of what you said:

“Perform the five, eat halal, do all legitimate works beautifully and carefully, take care of your Muslim fellows, do not take the fire with you to the Ahirat (afterlife) with your sins.”

Then he adds:

  • Even after doing all these, the person can only save the soul by the mercy and grace of Allah!

While we mentioned Mahir İz Hodja, who was a Naqshi dervish who passed away in 1974, let us remind our readers of his following words:

“The Muslim who is approved by Allah Taala and His Rasul alayhissalatu wassalam, cannot be simply distinguished in the mosque. Attending the congregations in mosques and joining the congregation in Arafah are only fulfilling two of the one thousand decrees of Allah Taala. Whether people are of those who are approved by Allah and His Messenger is figured out from behaviours and things they do outside the mosque.”

What kind of a Muslimhood?

Allah Taala decrees in Quran:

And I did not create the jinn and mankind except to worship Me.”  (Az-Zariyat, 56)

From this point of view, we can describe the Muslim approved by Allah and His Rasul alayhissalatu wassalam as “the one who worships or does servitude to the Rabb.”  This is because the verb “ya’budûn” in the ayah which most translators explain as “let them do servitude” also means “let them worship.” This means doing servitude and worshipping are in fact the same. Literally, both mean “to bow head, to obey.”

However, as a term, servitude indicates a stance, an identity, a sense of identity and this is called “ubudiyyat” (servitude, servanthood.) Ibadat, on the other hand, generally encompasses all the attitude and behaviours that are the requirements of this identity and the sense of identity. In particular, it means that “Farzes (which are) salah, sawm, hajj and zakat, and also nafila parts of these, which are fulfilled to express the shukr and gratefulness to make and homage to Allah Taala.”

There is an important case here: The particular extent of the ibadat does not necessitate the negligence of its general extent. This is because a person is still a servant of Allah Taala when outside of the period of time spent on fulfilling farzes of salah, sawm and hajj, and is still responsible to be in servitude to Him. Fulfilling the farzes (obligatory prayers) and avoiding haram is significant and high in priority, but this makes up only a part of our servanthood responsibilities. Abiding by the Sunnah, preferring mustahabs (good behaviours that are neither farz nor sunnah) and abstaining from makruhs and doubtful things are also among our obligations. Moreover, the awareness of servanthood raises even the mustahab deeds to the degree of ibadats by making them salih amal (sincerely done good deeds) because it ensures that we perform them in the way that Allah Taala loves. Besides, awareness of servanthood is a means to perform farz ibadats more willingly and sincerely (with ihlas) and farz ibadats are a means of keeping the sense of servanthood fresh.

Thus, the Muslim that Allah and His Messenger alayhissalatu wassalam approves of is the one who always tries to fulfil the requirements of servanthood everywhere and in every task with sincerity and enthusiasm. Such an effort will doubtlessly be the result of a sincere cognisance of servanthood.

Ibadat is subject to marifat

Servitude to Allah Taala first requires that a person should know that he/she is a servant, and to have a cognisance of servanthood. The cognisance of servanthood is the inevitable result of knowing and accepting the existence of a worshipped God, i.e. ma’bud. This means that a Muslim’s knowing his/her servanthood and fulfilling the requirements depends on his/her knowledge and acknowledgement of Allah Taala as the sole God, the only one to be worshipped and the lord. Since the time of Ibn Abbas radiyallahu anh, some mufassirs (scholars of Quran) have preferred the meaning of the verb in the above-mantioned ayah “li-ya’budun” as “marifatullah” which means “cognisance or knowing of Allah.”

Truly, a servant’s sensibility of ibadat is at the rate of his/her ma’rifat. A Muslim who knows that our Rabb is closer to us than our jugular vein, knows everything, even the ones we only think by our hearts, and He sees all, hears all, (and one who knows this) will not neglect his prayers or do them by halves. It must be because of this that one of the first things taught to children in the Ottoman primary schools (sıbyan mektebi) which were later called neighbourhood schools, was the “Attributes of Allah Taala.” Thus, it was aimed that children should know their Rabb. Because they carried their innocence in their nature with them, comprehending the existence of Allah Taala, His oneness, His qudrat (might) in early life made them sincere believers who had the sense of servanthood and who were fastidious in their ibadats.

The ayah “Only those fear Allah, from among His servants, who have knowledge.” (Fatir, 28) indicates this reality. Mentioned in the ayah, the Word “hashyat” means “a fear necessitated by the state of taqwa, a tremor in the face of Allah Taala’s greatness.” This is a sign of true servanthood. Those who have this knowledge are aalims, who are the heirs of prophets and carry on the methods and guidance of our beloved ’s -alayhissalati wassalam- of teaching, nurturing and notifying (tabligh.) These are the people who have the knowledge of truth. They are called “Rabbani aalims.” It was such aalims that were meant by the hadith: “The superiority of the knower (aalim) to worshipper (aabid) is like that of the Moon’s superiority to stars.” (Tirmizi, Ilm, 19)

Aabid, Aalim and Aarif (the ardent worshipper, the knower, and the sagacious)

Particularly the sufis make the “aalim-aabid” or “aarif-aabid” comparison a lot, and then emphasise the superiority of an aalim/arif to an aabid. This may result in misunderstandings if not paid attention to nuances.

Aabid means the one who worships and these comparisons have no implication of belittling aabids at all. Because one of the musts of being considered an aalim is that the person should apply his knowledge on his/her life, which means he/she must do all prayers without missing any. The sign of being an aarif is also sensibility in servanthood and prayers. Moreover, the favourite ma’rifat is the one that is gained by getting close to Allah with prayers and obedience. It is known to all that our beloved alayhissalatu wassalam who is the pinnacle of ilm and ma’rifat was fond of prayers. Even though he is free of the past and future sins, he is a servant who performed salah many nights until his feet were swollen.

In this respect, the term aabid is a bit altered in meaning in such mentioned comparisons. For example some hadith commentators (shaarih) thinks that the word aabid in the above-mentioned hadith means “a person who fulfils the prayers in appearance, without any insight to their core because of the lack of knowledge.” However, they say that an aalim understands the value of ibadats which he/she performs with hushuu’ and ihlas (peace and sincerity) due to his/her knowledge and ma’rifat. Others say about the aabid “who performs nafila (non-obligatory) prayers” and comment that the hadith means that “learning ilm is better than nafila ibadahs.”

As told in a ‘habar’ “An hour of tafakkur (contemplation) is better than a forty night’s (or a year’s) prayer.” Tafakkur is also one of the non-physical prayers. It is held higher than nafila prayers because it is a means to think on the perfectness of the creation of the nature, and the flawless functioning of the universe and the abundance of the nimahs (blessings) and thus achieve ma’rifah about the knowledge, might and grace of Allah Taala, and also because it is a means to make of Him (zikrullah).

Between fear and hope

With aabid, it is generally meant that “who fulfils certain prayers not for Allah’s riza but for enjoying Jannat’s delicacies.” Aalims consider that a servant’s worshipping           for the sake of Jannat is a lowly servitude, nonetheless it is allowed. Albeit this carries the risk of leading the person to believe to be saved not because of Allah’s mercy but in return for his/her prayers. Thus there is the danger that the servant may fall to hubris. Moreover, a person seeing the prayers as the ransom for the happiness in the afterlife, may result in increasing nafila prayers either to neglect ihlas (sincerity) or exceed his/her capabilities. In this respect, Rasulullah sallallahu alayhi wasallam warns us: “(In nafilas) take the middle path, be straight (on the right path.) Know that none of you will find salvation due to prayers! When his companions asked:

“Will you even not be saved, o Messenger of Allah?”

“Yes, I too… Yet if Allah Taala forgives me with mercy and grace, then it is otherwise.” (Muslim, Munafiqin, 76, 78)

This warning should not be interpreted as despair and insignificance of ibadats. Yes, in general, prayers or good deeds are not the price of our salvation. It is our Rabb Who taught us what is a good deed, and Who enabled us to perform them. It is against the manners of servanthood to offer a blessing He granted as if it is ours to give and use it as the right of buying Jannah. But when the prayers are fulfilled only to obey Allah Taala’s decree and earn His approval without any other intention, it is hoped that He will make these an excuse for our salvation and cause to His mercy and grace.

“O you who have believed, bow and prostrate and worship your Rabb and do good – that you may succeed.” (Hajj, 77)

In this ayah, it is indicated that there is the possibility that prayers will be the cause of salvation. It necessitates the servant’s fear as much as being hopeful since the possibility may occur on both ways. Another sign of true servanthood is the state of being in between fear (hawf) and hope (rajaa’.) When we say aabid in this sense, we mean those who worship presuming there will be absolute salvation for them.

It is against taqwa (awe  towards Allah) seeing savabs as not divine grace but the obligatory response for our salah and fasting, and the return for our effort.

The bestowal of Allah’s approval (Riza-i ilahi)

Another perception that is misjudged as ardent worship is that getting close to Allah and earning His approval is reduced to certain requirements and duties that come to mind when speaking of ibadat. Particularly those who are careful about and show a notable sensitivity in salah, sawm and their nafilas while not having  the same attention in their relationships with people, in their jobs, morals, consumption style etc. have such an understanding. In truth, the inconsistency between the image of devoutness and the attitudes and behaviours in daily life, makes the trueness of the notable care in the prayers questionable.

Decreed in Quran-i Karim and taught by the Prophet alayhissalatu wassalam, our prayers are the acknowledgment of our servanthood to Allah Taala. They are the expression of our knowledge that He is our God, and the expression of our exaltation, shukr and gratefulness, and of our helplessness before Him.  Prayers are the cause of getting close to Him and obtaining ma’rifat. The only goal here is achieving Allah Taala’s approval. Because of this, when beginning the prayers with determined time, rules and quantity, we start by saying “For the riza of Allah.”

Savabs and rewards promised in return for ibadats are in fact the grace of this hoped-for divine approval. We hope for Allah Taala’s aprroval but we do not become sure of it. Thus, It is against taqwa (awe) to see savabs as not divine grace but the obligatory response for our salah and fasting, and the return for our effort. A person with this misconception calculates an amount of savab for each ibadat, taking notes and keeping tally as if it is a list of debts owed to him/her to hand out to Allah Taala in the ahirah. Such a person does not care about the quality of the “beforehand-approved” prayers, but about their amount to build up this tally of notes.

This type of ardent worship does not stem from the cognisance of servanthood but derives from a logic of shopping. It is not “hasbi” (for Allah’s riza) but is “hasaabi” i.e. a calculative. When we open our hands to for praying or stand up for “salah of haajat” (prayer to ask for a need), our aim might seem to be asking for something but in fact it is a confession of our ajz (helplessness) and taking refuge in the qudrat and rahmat of our Rabb.

When lacking the cognisance of servanthood

We are human beings who are tested with various tribulations. Sometimes we falter and lose our direction. Time and again we fall for Shaytan’s deceit and are deceived by the worldliness, yielding to our nafs. All these may have us think that our servanthood just consists of limited obligations. We may sometimes forget that our servanthood responsibility encompasses the whole life. We may even have trouble performing the farz ibadats with desire and pleasure. Maybe we are lacking in the continuity of the prayers, in abiding by the formal rules and in our sincerity. Maybe the body is aabid, but the has not yet become aabid. Maybe gaflat (heedlessness) has not yet left us in our ibadats or even if we do not express it, we may be looking at non-devout people and fall into hubris with our salat and sawm within our hearts. If that is so, instead of denying these or keeping them as a heartache, we should look for ways to get rid of them.

These and other similar weaknesses, negligence and problematic concepts related to our ibadats firstly show that we lack a healthy cognisance of servanthood. Because Imam Qushayri rahmatullahi alayh lists the characteristics of the cognisance of the servanthood, i.e. ubudiyyat, in his Risalah as below:

  • Turning towards Allah Taala by and occupying it with Him.
  • Abiding by Allah’s orders and prohibitions fastidiously.
  • Doing servitude to Allah Taala with pleasure, love, and enthusiasm.
  • Making every work a good deed (amal-i salih)
  • Being razi of Allah (being content with His ordainment, being pleased with Him) and knowing that everything comes from Him, doing shukr for His blessings, showing patience in the face of troubles and hardships.
  • Looking at all the living beings favorably.

If we cannot do so, it means we lack the cognisance of servanthood: ubudiyyat. This lacking stems from not knowing Allah Taala enough, a lack of ma’rifat. It is said that “He/she who knows oneself, knows his/her Rabb.”

When we do not know who we are, which means not knowing our servanthood, we do not know our Rabb and forget His might and mercy. Then the remedy is knowing our Rabb, i.e. ma’rifatullah. For this, ibadats done with ihlas are opportunities, tafakkur is an opportunity, so is zikr, learning ilm and friendship with Allah’s friends.

Marifatullah and good deeds

 Knowing Allah Taala requires iman (faith), and iman requires good deeds. Every good and beneficial work, act or behaviour that is in accordance with Islam’s standards and will earn the riza of Allah is a salih amal (good deed). As understood from the wide definition of ibadat, “every deed or abstaining behaviour done with the aim of servanthood and getting close to Allah (qurbiyyat)” is formally considered an act of ibadat. Moreover, in some ayahs in Quran-i Karim, after when decreed “Do servitude to Allah/make prayers” besides salah, sawm, hajj and zakat, some good deeds are also mentioned. In the 83rd ayah of Surah Baqarah, after the decree of servanthood to Allah, besides salah and sawm “being good to mother and father, relatives, orphans and the poor; and talking to people in a goodly manner” is also mentioned. In other ayahs for example, “Worship Allah and associate nothing with Him, and to parents do good, and to relatives, orphans, the needy, the near neighbor, the neighbor farther away, the companion at your side, the traveler, and those whom your right hands possess.” (Nisa 36) and “So fulfill the measure and weight and do not deprive people of their due and cause not corruption upon the earth after its reformation.” (A’raf 85) these are decreed as the conditions of servanthood to Allah Taala.

In truth, it is enough to show the relation of iman-amal (faith and deed) to see in many ayahs that salih amal is mentioned after iman, and Muslims are defined as the people “who have faith and do good deeds.” This relation is in the form of a reciprocal influence. Including salih amals, ibadats come to life with iman leading them. Ibadats that come to life make the servant get closer to his/her Rabb and make iman strong.

Another factor not to be forgotten is this: Salih amals that are ibadats in general meaning do not substitute the farz ones that are determined with required form, amount and rules by the deen (religion). They do not diminish the importance or the value of the farzes.

For example, it is not acceptable to say “working too is prayer” and neglect salah.

Ibadats done with enthusiasm

 Knowing Allah Taala requires loving Him in a profound degree called ashq (true love). Because it is not possible to know Him and not love Him. He is the Creator, and is the One Who gives blessings, protects and forgives. He has the absolute beauty and perfection. For that, He has the most beautiful names.

Love becomes truly love when it is not just a claim but a state of being.  It leads the servant to get close to Allah Almighty, to meet with Him, and always to make His remembrance. Lover (aashiq), for this cause, suffers all sorts of hardships and, however hard it is, sees that each means to reach Him is an opportunity. He/she firmly abstains from the negligence of servanthood that Allah Taala expects of him/her, and also from acting against His riza. He/she fears disloyalty, ungratefulness, not keeping his/her promises, and forgetting Him the most. The servant is in a state of constant watchfulness while on the straightforward path to be safe even from smallest slips which will delay the wuslat, in other words, reuniting with Him. This is taqwa and even though it seems like a contradiction, in truth, the result of muhabbatullah (love of Allah) in the highest degree is a fear.

This is why the servant who knows and loves Allah, heartily turns towards ibadats –including salih amals- as a proof of this love. He/she starts doing them with love, pleasure and ihlas. There is no goal other than Allah’s approval in his/her heart, and does not make calculations. The feeling of being reassured that ibadats provide is the result of getting close to Allah, making His and meeting Him in one’s heart. For this, it is decreed in Quran “Unquestionably, by the remembrance of Allah hearts are assured.”(Ra’d 28) To keep the joy, peace and relief that this feeling of reassurance provides, the servant makes the constant as well. Constant is not only remembering our Rabb by tongue. It is turning all our deeds and behaviours into salih amals by thinking “How will I do this to earn Allah Almighty’s approval?” If this is not the case for us, and if we are performing our ibadats involuntarily, with difficulty and laziness, it means we have problems about knowing Allah Taala. The remedy is again in tafakkur (contemplation), learning ilm, being together with salih (good) servants of Allah Taala.

 To not fall for Shaytan’s deceit.

The lack of joy that derives from neglecting ibadats, turning them into mere habits, and performing them haphazardly without necessary sensibility… All of these disturb the servant. This is right where the Shaytan steps in. He whispers: “The prayer you perform is already insignificant, it is alright if you stop doing it altogether.” He makes us think that, instead of doing superficially, it is better not to do it at all for the sake of respect towards our Rabb. Behind our decision to abandon our flawed prayers, there is a reason which seems right in outward appearance, since our feeble and unworthy deeds are not fit for Allah Taala’s glory. It is necessary not to be deceived by Shaytan’s cunning and keep away from such a danger of being completely detached from servanthood.

The right thing to do here is to persist in servitude to Allah and try to perform our ibadats better, more regularly and more sincerely. In such occasions, it is advised to adhere more and more to the exalted Sunnah. In an ayah that is revealed addressing to our beloved Prophet alayhissalatu wassalam:

Say, [O Muhammad], “If you should love Allah, then follow me, [so] Allah will love you and forgive you your sins. And Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.” (Ali Imran, 31)

We hope that abiding by the Sunnah of Rasulullah sallallahu alayhi wasallam will be the cause for Allah to love us, and thus, to forgive our sins, and hopefully this will enable us to do our ibadats with sincerity and enthusiasm, and without delay.  Our beloved Prophet is our best example (uswa-i hasanah) in servanthood as well. Besides farz prayers, he showed us how to do servitude by his morals, attitudes and behaviours which he made into good deeds. He taught us that servitude to Allah Taala is an honour, not a burden. The freedom, dignity and honour of a person is in servanthood. When ahl-i irfan (those who have ma’rifat, wise people) talk about the time they reached puberty, they say “we are honoured” instead of “we are obliged.” In short, humans are honoured to be addressed by the offer of ibadat and good deeds. Thus, we should pay close attention to prayers and deeds in order to preserve this honour.

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